MPs condemn Birt for losing Test cricket

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The Independent Online
MPS ATTACKED the "lazy and arrogant" BBC yesterday for losing television coverage of home Test matches to Channel 4.

But BBC bosses said they would rather jeopardise their remaining sports contracts than put up a lot more cash to retain them.

MPs on the Culture, Media and Sports select committee accused the BBC's director- general, Sir John Birt, and its chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, of "throwing in the towel" on sports.

The BBC was accused of being "lazy and arrogant" about sport and of wasting pounds 30m a year on its News 24 channel, which has a tiny audience, when the money could have been used to keep Test cricket. Asked to provide reassurances that current contracts, such as that for Wimbledon, are safe in the BBC's hands, officials refused to give guarantees. Pointing out that the costs of sports rights are rising by about 30 per cent a year, while the BBC's income increases at only 3 per cent, the top brass seemed resigned to a long decline in what was once the nation's premier sports service.

"The broadcasting reality of sport has changed fundamentally," said Sir John. "Some of it is bound to go. It's a simple matter of economics."

Will Wyatt, chief executive of BBC Broadcast, said that if competitors selected a particular sport it was hard for the BBC to fend them off. "If someone comes in a raid and is determined to get something - it is very difficult to keep them off your territory," he said.

"If I said, `We will lose no more sports rights', that would be unrealistic... in the end it is money which counts and the BBC is at a disadvantage."

Earlier this year Mr Wyatt made the same point rather more colourfully. Referring to ITV's strategy of targeting particular contracts he said his rival had the freedom to say "We're not interested in cricket. Bugger cricket. We're not interested in tennis. Bugger tennis. We're not interested in athletics. Bugger athletics. Remember they're not making programmes for viewers. They're making programmes for advertisers".

Sir Christopher took a similar line and said the BBC was right not to have paid the extra pounds 10m to keep Test cricket. "We lost it because of the money. I don't believe we should have put more money on the table, as it would have been a disservice to the rest of our viewers," he said.

The response disappointed committee member David Faber, a Tory and a member of the MCC. "It was a depressing message. There seems to be no political will in the higher echelons to give sport a fair crack of the whip," he said.

The select committee performance is also certain to cause dismay at the BBC Sports department, where morale is said to be at rock bottom because of a perception that the BBC has the cash to secure big contracts but is not willing to give sport priority.

The BBC's remaining sports contracts include the World Cup, Wimbledon, the Commonwealth Games, the Open golf, the European Athletics Championships and the Winter Olympics.